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Think Differently

Explore new ways to tackle problems, from systems thinking to a historian's view.

Jeffrey D. Sachs

Jeffrey D. Sachs

Director, Center for Sustainable Development, Columbia University

Think Differently
  • Overview
  • Episodes
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Jeffrey D. Sachs, Director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University, believes that in a globalized economy, systems thinking is the only tool for solving the massive, complex challenges we face. Learn from Sachs and other professors, journalists, and Nobel Prize winners about how to change the way you think, see new patterns, and tackle complex problems.

What You'll Learn

  • Systems thinking

  • How to establish digital platforms

  • To simplify problems

  • Creative problem-solving

Timothy Snyder's image was originally posted by Frauemacht and the image has been changed. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 Unported license.


7 Episodes

1. Bringing Order to Chaos: Models for Study and Emerging Challenges for Systems Thinkers


There was a time in the not-too-distant past when a US president said “let’s get to the moon by the end of the decade”, and we did. The kind of systems thinking that made that happen—creating NASA and coordinating the thousands of individuals and contractors that together achieved this astonishing goal—may seem impossibly remote these days, but it’s still well within our grasp. In fact advances in information technology are producing a new generation of native masters of systems thinking. This is good news. Because in a globalized economy, systems thinking is the only tool for solving the massive, complex challenges we face.Systems thinker: One who uses a holistic approach to analyzing a system’s constituent parts, focusing on how things operate within the context of larger systemsModels for StudyThe emergence of NASA in the 1950’s and 60’s is a prime example of systems thinking. The first space mission was a model of systems design and building.The Interstate Highway Syste...

2. Think Different: Lessons Learned from the Late Steve Jobs


In spite of the massive successes of companies like Uber and Facebook, the power of digital platforms is still in its infancy. There are enormous opportunities for experimentation and learning as value shifts from products to those who can build intuitive, efficient platforms that connect people, providers, products, and more. But even in these early days, some compelling patterns have emerged.Lessons Learned with Apple’s iOSA digital platform will typically get introduced on top of an existing industry. For example, Apple’s iOS rests on top of the smartphone industry.Any platform needs two distinct groups of participants. iOS brings together app consumers and app developers. The platform sits in the middle and allows for easy connections between the two groups.As the two groups grow and stay connected, they make up a two-sided network. The two-sided network leads to a network effect - the more people who use the platform, the more valuable it becomes.Making the LeapMost industrie...

3. Narrow Your Focus: Find Your Path to Progress with Reductionism


Eric Kandel won a Nobel Prize for his work on the neurological bases of memory. To make meaningful progress on any complex problem, he advises a two-stage approach. First, narrow your focus to a specific aspect of the problem on which you see a path to progress. In his case, this was the discovery that systems of neurons—not the properties of certain types of cells—were responsible for holding short- and long-term memories in the human brain.Second, apply a “reductionist approach”—studying the problem with a model or in some more rudimentary form that isolates and simplifies it. For Kandel, this meant looking at the nerve systems of a kind of sea slug. For you and your organization, it might mean anything from examining smaller-scale case studies, to doing a “beta test”, to creating a working computer model.In TheoryReductionism allows you to focus intensely on one component of a complex problem or to focus on one system in which that component is prominent or easy to study.R...

4. Use Systems Thinking


Karl Popper, the great philosopher, said “All problems are either clouds or clocks.” To understand a clock, you take it apart and study the individual pieces. In the case of a cloud, there’s no way to take it apart. It’s a dynamic, emergent system that must be studied as a whole.New York Times columnist David Brooks says that as a society we tend to take cloud problems and pretend they are clock problems. This is true in cases like the human brain, national and organizational culture, team spirit, and poverty. If we thought in terms of emergent systems, he says, we would have a more supple view of the way the world actually works.In this module, Brooks discusses the merits of shifting your approach to creative problem-solving.

5. Steal from the Past to Get Ahead: Study History to See Patterns Coming Together


Imagine you’re in a foreign country and you need to buy shampoo. You speak the language, but you’re not familiar with the brands. How do you choose?Focusing on that moment, says Roger Martin, dean of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, was the big pivot that rescued Proctor and Gamble’s business from the torpor of a “reliability focus” that was hampering the company’s growth. It was a question of empathy––of better understanding the customer’s feelings and motivations.In a now-famous meeting, A.G. Lafley, P&G’s executive chairman, pointed out that there are “two moments of truth”. The first is when the customer decides to buy your product. The second is when she uses it. P&G had built its reputation up to that point on the second moment––on delivering a reliable product. But reliability is moot if the customer never buys the product in the first place. The first and second moments of truth are interdependent, not mutually exclusive.In order to break out of old mode...

6. Steal from the Past to Get Ahead: Study History to See Patterns Coming Together


“People of action”, a term many in business would apply to themselves, sometimes stereotype historians as dreamers, slumped inactively over dusty books. They couldn’t be more wrong. Well-read historians have an almost unique ability to get ahead of patterns before they coalesce, making wise decisions that will shape the future. “People of action” would be wise to adopt their methods.Know what can’t happenWhen confronted by a surprising problem in the present, ask: What does history tell us about what is possible in this scenario? How have events like these coalesced before?Looking to the past frees you from the conviction of the day.Borrow correct reactionsExtract people’s wise responses from the past and apply them to similar problems you face in the present.Get comfortable with novelty. Recognize that the world changes all the time; what was unbelievable yesterday could seem normal today.

7. Adopt the Scientist's Mindset: Take a Rational Approach to Seeking and Finding Truth


Very few areas of life and work are exact sciences. But we’re always evaluating claims and ideas to determine which are more or less true for practical purposes. This is how we make smart choices. In doing so, it’s helpful to keep in mind some principles from science: that in trying to determine what’s objectively true it’s important to test our intuitions through careful critical thinking, replicability, and, wherever possible, statistical analysis.

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